Washington is in a very strange place. Swearing-in day which will take place tomorrow traditionally is a very festive occasion. Members—old and new—arrive to take their formal oaths of office as Members of the new 116th Congress accompanied frequently by young children or grandchildren permitted on the Floor of their respective chambers. They then will have personal swearing-in ceremonies followed by individual receptions all over the Capitol for their extended families, friends, and major donors. These frequently continue in the evening around Washington as well, before the Members begin to attend to the people’s business. It feels as if this year the entire town is operating in a very different rhythm beginning from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the now politically divided Congress. The Nation’s Capital is not in a festive mood.
President Trump has spent his non-golfing Christmas vacation in the White House—with a quick trip to Iraq. He has tweeted almost daily about the border wall, said the Democrats were responsible for the government shut down whose ownership he had explicitly accepted on television in the Oval Office. Trump invited the congressional leaders back before the new Congress convened to discuss negotiations on re-opening the Government. Nancy Pelosi indicated the Democrats were interested in ending the shutdown and then addressing the wall, the President proceeded to set terms for their meeting which were non-negotiable. Having now dissed his Vice-President twice as well in his own negotiations on the shut-down, it is once again clear that no one who seeks to negotiate with the President has any idea what he truly intends.
In a similar vein, Trump’s changing his Syria withdrawal plans now to be achieved over months not in 30 days, only validates Trump’s lack of any serious thought being given to his national security decision-making process. When he told his Cabinet today as well, that Iran is also withdrawing its troops from Syria and Iran can do “what they want there…..”, the President was once again making policy decisions based on whim and fancy.
When the Democrats take power in the House, they assume what is supposed to be a constructive part of governing. It will be vital to observe how the Democrats conduct themselves in a divided Government. The challenges ahead of Nancy Pelosi are not insignificant. She must negotiate a path between governing by confrontation or by constructive engagement. The new Speaker leads a Democratic caucus that—leaving aside all the investigatory probes—is angry and raring for a fight. On a policy level alone, many Members want at least partially to dish it back to Trump. Pelosi needs to control her more largely young progressive wing and yet pursue an agenda that can face the voters in 2020 with some legislative successes. The key for both Pelosi as well as Schumer is whether they will indeed seek to govern with conflict resolution and compromise or strictly obstruct.
Beyond the substantive issues that are immediately on the table—beginning but not ending with the partial Government shut-down over the “wall”—the climate in Washington suggests the atmosphere which permeated the Royal English and French Courts of the 16th or 17th Centuries; you never knew who was carrying a knife or poison ready to wipe out the competition. Political leaders no longer murder their rivals, but the politicians on both sides have arrived in Washington this January prepared to do battle.